Coastal engineering, as it relates to harbours, starts with the development of ancient civilizations together with the origin of maritime traffic, perhaps before 3500 B.C. Docks, breakwaters, and other harbour works were built by hand and often in a grand scale.
Some of the harbour works are still visible in a few of the harbours that exist today, while others have recently been explored by underwater archaeologists. Most of the grander ancient harbour works have disappeared following the fall of the Roman Empire.
Most ancient coastal efforts were directed to port structures, with the exception of a few places where life depended on coastline protection. Venice and its lagoon is one such case. Protection of the shore in Italy, England and the Netherlands can be traced back at least to the 6th century. The ancients understood such phenomena as the Mediterranean currents and wind patterns and the wind-wave cause-effect link.
The Romans introduced many revolutionary innovations in harbour design. They learned to build walls underwater and managed to construct solid breakwaters to protect fully exposed harbours. In some cases wave reflection may have been used to prevent silting. They also used low, water-surface breakwaters to trip the waves before they reached the main breakwater. They became the first dredgers in the Netherlands to maintain the harbour at Velsen. Silting problems here were solved when the previously sealed solid piers were replaced with new “open”-piled jetties. The Romans also introduced to the world the concept of the holiday at the coast.
- Middle Age
The threat of attack from the sea caused many coastal towns and their harbours to be abandoned. Other harbours were lost due to natural causes such as rapid silting, shoreline advance or retreat, etc. The Venetian Lagoon was one of the few populated coastal areas with continuous prosperity and development where written reports document the evolution of coastal protection works. Engineering and scientific skills remained alive in the east, in Byzantium, where the Eastern Roman Empire survived for six hundred years while Western Rome decayed.
- Modern Age
Leonardo da Vinci could be considered the precursor of coastal engineering science, offering ideas and solutions often more than three centuries ahead of their common acceptance. Although great strides were made in the general scientific arena, little improvement was done beyond the Roman approach to harbour construction after the Renaissance. In the early 19th century, the advent of the steam engine, the search for new lands and trade routes, the expansion of the British Empire through her colonies, and other influences, all contributed to the revitalization of sea trade and a renewed interest in port works.
- Twentieth century
Evolution of shore protection and the shift from structures to beach nourishment. Prior to the 1950s, the general practice was to use hard structures to protect against beach erosion or storm damages. These structures were usually coastal armoring such as seawalls and revetments or sand-trapping structures such as groynes. During the 1920s and ‘30s, private or local community interests protected many areas of the shore using these techniques in a rather ad hoc manner. In certain resort areas, structures had proliferated to such an extent that the protection actually impeded the recreational use of the beaches. Erosion of the sand continued, but the fixed back-beach line remained, resulting in a loss of beach area. The obtrusiveness and cost of these structures led in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to move toward a new, more dynamic, method. Projects no longer relied solely on hard coastal defence structures, as techniques were developed which replicated the protective characteristics of natural beach and dune systems. The resultant use of artificial beaches and stabilized dunes as an engineering approach was an economically viable and more environmentally friendly means for dissipating wave energy and protecting coastal developments.
Over the past hundred years the limited knowledge of coastal sediment transport processes at the local authorities level has often resulted in inappropriate measures of coastal erosion mitigation. In many cases, measures may have solved coastal erosion locally but have exacerbated coastal erosion problems at other locations -up to tens of kilometers away- or have generated other environmental problems.